A simple finger-tapping technique can lower anxiety within minutes, a study has shown.
The method involves using the tips of the index and middle finger to tap on eight specific points on the body for 10 minutes.
These ‘acupuncture points’ are at the ends of so-called ‘meridians,’ pathways in the body where Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners believe energy flows.
The tapping method was combined with mental reframing exercises, adding up to a strategy known as EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques).
A simple finger-tapping technique can lower anxiety within minutes, a study has shown (stock image)
Researchers did not report individual results for the study volunteers, but on average, the 22 students with specific phobias who participated in the study reported less distress about the objects of their phobias after the treatment.
In fact, on this scale they ended up falling below the cutoff level that qualified them to participate in the first place.
They also reported less anxiety about their feared situations and less difficulty approaching the object of their fears, on average.
They improved significantly more on all three of these measures after doing EFT than after doing a deep breathing exercise. None reported any negative side effects.
It is more effective at reducing anxiety than deep breathing, demonstrated the study, which was published in the journal Explore.
EFT is a non-pharmaceutical approach that incorporates elements of acupressure, exposure therapy, and cognitive restructuring.
Participants with specific phobias like cockroaches, snakes, syringes and heights were asked to focus on the object of their fear while either breathing deeply with their diaphragm or doing the acupressure exercises of EFT.
Researchers then assessed their anxiety levels with a standard questionnaire that asked them about their physical and mental symptoms of anxiety when they think about their specific fear.
They also assessed participants’ overall distress and anxiety surrounding their phobias, as well as their ability to approach their phobia without excessive anxiety.
The volunteers were divided into two groups, one trying the EFT tapping exercises first and the other trying deep breathing first.
This study design, known as a ‘crossover,’ tested both treatments on both groups, so the group that first did EFT then tried deep breathing, and vice versa.
Each group completed five two-minute rounds of each treatment, so EFT only took a total of 10 minutes.
In the study, people who first used EFT showed significant reductions in phobia-related anxiety and had an easier time approaching the object of their fear, including heights, cockroaches, snakes, syringes, darkness and cockroaches.
The group that started with deep breathing showed a reduction in subjective anxiety (down to 5.7 points on the 12-point scale), but not as much as the EFT group did (2.9 points on the same scale).
When the EFT group tried deep breathing, their already reduced anxiety remained low. And when the deep breathing group tried EFT, their anxiety dropped to match the other group’s.
A similar effect occurred with the physical and mental effects of anxiety: The deep breathing group’s average score on the 45-point anxiety scale went down to 27.9, but the EFT group’s plummeted to 15.9. When the deep breathers tried EFT, their average score dove down to 15.3.
‘Specific phobias are an extreme fear of objects or situations that pose little or no danger but make you highly anxious,’ according to the Mayo Clinic.
When a person experiences anxiety, their sympathetic nervous system is activated, a state familiarly known as ‘fight or flight’ mode.
The idea behind EFT is that it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the portion of our nervous system that restores a state of calm and relaxation.
To perform the brief version of EFT used in the study, participants used the tips of the index and middle finger to tap on eight specific points on their bodies.
‘These points correspond to the endpoints of traditional acupuncture meridians,’ the study’s authors write. The first point they tapped was on the side of their hand next to the little finger.
‘While they did this, they repeated an affirmation statement three times. For example: ‘Even though I have this fear of heights, I deeply and completely accept myself.’
Then while they went through the remaining seven points, tapping each one seven times, they repeated a reminder phrase, something like ‘this fear of heights.’
According to the study, these seven tapping targets include the following points: ‘the beginning of either eyebrow, the outside corner of the eye, about one inch under either eye, under the nose in the center of the upper lip, between the lower lip and the chin, just below the end of the collarbone next to the sternum, and about four inches down from the center of either armpit.’
To heighten the realism, the test took place in the presence of the object of volunteers’ fears.
For example, participants with a fear of heights did the exercise near tall athletic bleachers, and those with a fear of snakes ran through the exercise near a serpent research space.
This technique may sound too simple to work, but more recent evidence supports its effectiveness, and not just for phobias but for other forms of anxiety as well. Nurses caring for COVID-19 patients participated in an EFT study in 2020, which showed significant positive effects on the healthcare workers’ stress and anxiety.
And a 2016 review of 14 different studies, including more than 600 total participants, showed that the technique is associated with significant reductions in anxiety scores.
Interestingly, though the acupressure component of the treatment has its roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine, modern neuroscience techniques suggest that some of the benefits come from changing the way that different parts of the brain communicate with each other.
A 2022 study of 24 adults with chronic pain found that EFT reduced pain severity, reduced their anxiety and improved their quality of life, among other benefits. And examining their brain with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed why this may be the case: ‘fMRI analysis showed post-EFT treatment significantly decreased connectivity between the medial prefrontal cortex (a pain modulating area) and bilateral grey matter areas in the posterior and thalamus, both areas being related to modulating and catastrophizing of pain.’
In other words, EFT seems to exert a broad influence on the brain, decreasing not only a person’s anxiety but also their experience of something as debilitating as chronic pain.
Severe anxiety that interferes significantly with your daily life is something to talk about with a healthcare provider, but in the meantime, perhaps it is worth giving EFT a try for minor bouts of fear before a public speaking engagement or before confronting a cockroach in the kitchen.